Tuesday, February 19, 2019

A word about UH basketball

I rarely write about UH basketball, but I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that they are kicking ass right now. They currently have a 25-1 record, they are ranked in the AP top ten for the first time since the 1984 Phi Slama Jama team, and they are a consensus three seed, and could even et up to a two seed, when thew NCAA tournament starts in a few weeks. I've even attended a few games at the magnificently-renovated Fertitta Center this season:

As somebody who has whose childhood memories of the glory of days of UH basketball slowly recede further into memory, this is all a bit surreal. I am enjoying every moment of it. 

And yet... I don't want to enjoy it too much. The Cougars still have several tough games to play, including their conference tournament, and nothing is guaranteed for them in terms of seeding. Furthermore, I don't want the Cougars to be the victims of any spectacular upset that the Big Dance is known for: this team should make it to the Sweet Sixteen and could make it to the Elite Eight or (dare I say it?) even the Final Four, but I don't want to jinx them or get my hopes up too much.

What I will say, however, is that after over three decades, UH basketball is exciting to watch again, but is once again relevant at the national level. A lot of credit goes to coach Kelvin Sampson and his staff for making this happen; he has all the gratitude from a long-suffering UH basketball fanbase.

Airbus axes the A380

Last week, Airbus announced the end of the line for its iconic double-deckered jumbo jet:
European plane manufacturer Airbus said Thursday it will stop making its superjumbo A380 in 2021 for lack of customers, abandoning the world’s biggest passenger jet and one of the aviation industry’s most ambitious and most troubled endeavors. 
Barely a decade after the 500-plus-seat plane started carrying passengers, Airbus said in a statement that key client Emirates is cutting back its orders for the plane, and as a result, “we have no substantial A380 backlog and hence no basis to sustain production.” 
The decision could hurt up to 3,500 jobs and already cost the plane maker 463 million euros (about $523 million) in losses in 2018, Airbus said. 
This isn't much of surprise, considering that the A380 program had been on the chopping block a year ago before being thrown a lifeline by Emirates. I was skeptical at the time that the A380 would ultimately survive, and I was right.

Ben Mutzabaugh explains that the A380 program failed because "it never found a profitable niche:"
While the A380 can carry more passengers than any other commercial passenger plane, the four-engine aircraft also is more expensive to operate compared to modern two-engine jets. For example, Boeing's two-engine 777 models are cheaper to operate and can seat nearly 400 passengers.  
The A380 also required some airports to modify taxiways and airport terminals to be able to accommodate the giant jet. 
Even Boeing's iconic humped 747, its closest in capacity to the A380, has seen sales decline as passenger airlines increasingly prefer two-engine models that are less costly to operate. 
"The very clear trend in the market is to operate long-haul aircraft with two engines [such as] Boeing's 787 and 777, and Airbus's A330 and A350," Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor of Flight Global, says to the BBC.
The A380 began flying for airlines just in 2007, when Singapore Airlines put the jet into passenger service.
Dubai-based carrier Emirates was an enthusiastic supporter of the jet, ordering nearly half of all the roughly 270 A380s Airbus is expected to have made before the line ends.
Beyond Emirates, however, the A380 never found the broad customer base Airbus envisioned.
No U.S. carriers ever gave serious consideration to ordering the jet. About a dozen other global airlines bought the jet, including Air France, British Airways, Korean Air, Lufthansa and Qantas, among others. But, aside from Emirates, the A380 was just a niche player in the fleets of most airlines to fly it.
The end of the A380 serves as a bookend to my series regarding the twilight of four-engined passenger jets. As majestic and exciting as these aircraft might be, there's simply no market for them anymore. Two-engined widebodies simply offer more flexibility and efficiency.

If you haven't yet flown on an A380, however, don't despair: the ones now flying and still on order will likely continue to fly well into the 2020s and perhaps even beyond.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Former Cougars represent as the Alliance of American Football kicks off

The state's newest professional football team started their existence with a win on Saturday, thanks in part to some famous former Cougars:
The San Antonio Commanders defeated the San Diego Fleet, 15-6, on Saturday at the Alamodome to win the franchise's first game in the Alliance of American Football. 
And although the game was played about 200 miles away, the win had plenty of Houston flavor. 
Former University of Houston players Kenneth Farrow and Greg Ward Jr. made big impacts in the inaugural win. 
Farrow, a former UH running back, scored the first touchdown in Commanders history. His 3-yard rush in the first quarter gave San Antonio a 12-6 lead and was the only touchdown of the game. 
Ward, a renowned quarterback during his days with the Cougars, made his presence felt at wide receiver. He finished the game with five catches for 65 yards.
In addition to Farrow and Ward, former UH WR Demarcus Ayers and DL Joey Mbu also play for the Commanders.

The Alliance of American Football is an eight-team league trying to make a go of spring football where other leagues (the USFL, the XFL, and even the NFL-backed WLAF/NFL Europe) failed. The league is arranged such that teams are assigned players from nearby colleges, which is why San Antonio has so many former UH players on their teams. It also features some tweaks to the rules of the game, to wit:
No extra points.Teams have to go for two. There are no kickoffs, either, and teams will instead get possession on their own 25-yard line. Kickers are barely involved. Speaking of which...
Onside kicks are replaced by one fourth-and-12 play on the team’s own 28-yard line.This is a terrific idea that I endorse wholeheartedly. 

Overtime is kind of similar to the college system.Except each team gets the ball on the 10-yard line, and they aren’t allowed to kick field goals.
The play clock is 35 seconds instead of 40 seconds.There will also be no TV timeouts. The aim is to keep games under two-and-a-half hours. 
There will be a “sky judge.” (This is not a euphemism for God.)The officiating crew includes a ninth referee who sits in the booth and constantly reviews game action. The sky judge has the power to make calls or overturn penalties in case the on-field officials miss them. This is perhaps the AAF’s most intriguing wrinkle. Assuming it works as intended, it seems like it could be a common-sense solution to some of the NFL’s most glaring officiating issues. New Orleans would have certainly appreciated the presence of a sky judge during the NFC Championship game.
The AAF also argues that it has tapped into a broad array of football talent and experience that will allow it to succeed where previous spring football leagues have failed.
The cast of decorated and respected industry veterans involved in this venture is robust, beginning with AAF co-founder and CEO Charlie Ebersol (whose father, Dick, is a former chairman of NBC Sports) and co-founder Bill Polian, a six-time NFL Executive of the Year. 
Pittsburgh Steelers legends Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu are heads of football development and player relations, respectively. Mike Singletary (Memphis), Steve Spurrier (Orlando) and Mike Martz (San Diego) are among the league’s head coaches. Three-time Super Bowl champion Daryl "Moose" Johnston is general manager of the San Antonio Commanders. 
And the first season will begin with plenty of name recognition filling out each teams’ roster (including former Heisman winner Trent Richardson, ex-Titans starter Zach Mettenberger, and Aaron Murray, who threw more touchdown passes at Georgia than anyone in SEC history). 
Mike Perreira and Dean Blandino are listed as officiating consultants. Shaquille O'Neal, former Minnesota Vikings pro bowler Jared Allen and The Chernin Group (which owns Barstool Sports) are among the known investors.  
The AAF has also gone out of its way to identify one critical difference between itself and other leagues like it that have failed to last very long: It's not interested in competing with the NFL.  
"Our whole goal is just to be complementary (to the NFL)," Ward told CBS Sports last year.
The league has television contracts with CBS, CBS Sports Network, the NFL Network and TNT. In fact, last Saturday night's games on CBS actually got better ratings than an NBA game on ABC. That could be a good omen for the upstart league, although it's also worth remembering that the original XFL had good ratings in its debut weekend as well, and we know how that turned out. I'm also noticing that the AAF is placing a lot of focus on smaller, "second-tier" football markets such as San Antonio, Memphis, Birmingham, Orlando, and Salt Lake City, which seemed to be a losing strategy for the USFL, the WLAF, and the XFL.

And speaking of the XFL: if the AAF does make it through its first season and returns in 2020, it will be competing head-to-head with the second iteration of the XFL (which is expected to place a team here in Houston). This is where things will get very interesting, because it's difficult to assume that there will be enough quality players (or eyeballs) to sustain two spring football leagues. How long will this situation last before one or both leagues fail (or perhaps merge)? And if one or both leagues do succeed, what might it mean for the NFL and for college football?

Time will tell. In the meantime, I will continue to follow the San Antonio Commanders this spring, because I enjoy football and because I want to see folks like Ken Farrow and Greg Ward Jr. do well and perhaps find their way back into the NFL. I'm also looking forward to Houston's XFL 2.0 team next season, and will probably attend some games.

I'm skeptical that either league will succeed long-term. But I hope to be proven wrong.

Flights from Houston to Africa to resume

Ethiopian Airlines is coming to Houston this summer, meaning that this city will once again enjoy non-stop connections to every inhabited continent:
Houston is regaining an important accolade: Bush Intercontinental Airport will offer flights to every continent where people outnumber penguins. 
The airport lost its distinction of offering flights to every continent but Antarctica last year with the cancellation of SonAir's charter to Luanda, Angola. But starting this summer, Ethiopian Airlines will fly to Houston from West Africa three times a week. The news release did not specify from where in West Africa. 
Ethiopian Airlines will become the 21st foreign flag carrier offering passenger flights out of Bush Intercontinental. And it's the first new international airline in more than a year. The airport added a bunch of international airlines in 2014 and 2015, but it then slowed down, adding only Bahamasair in November 2017. 
"Finding the right partner and strengthening our connection with Africa was one of our primary goals in continuing the growth in international travel to the Houston market," Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz said in a news release, "and we are excited to partner with Ethiopian Airlines to make that happen."
The flight to Houston will replace Ethiopian's current service to LAX and be operated via a stopover in west Africa (likely either Accra, Ghana or Lomé, Togo). It will be operated with Boeing 787 equipment. Since both airlines are Star Alliance members, this service allows Ethiopian to plug directly into to United's hub at IAH for passengers and connections. The announcement for this service was made a couple of weeks ago, but a definitive start of service date still has yet to be announced.

I'm not sure I'll ever make use of this particular service - Ethiopia is on the "would be cool to visit, but probably won't get the chance" list - by my Ethiopian co-worker seems excited about using it to visit her family, and the fact that Houston will once again have an air connection to Africa is certainly good for the city's economy and overall prestige.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Were the Saints victims of bad officiating or bad coaching?

As anybody who even casually follows American football now knows, the New Orleans Saints lost to the Los Angeles Rams, and therefore missed out on a trip to the Super Bowl, on a game that was marred by a blatant officiating error. The referees failed to call an obvious pass interference penalty late in the tied game that would have benefitted the Saints and perhaps had helped them win:

The Rams defender, Nickell Robey-Coleman, clearly blows up Saints wide receiver TommyLee Lewis while the ball is still in the air, a textbook example of pass interference. There was some helmet-to-helmet contact there, too, which is also a non-no. Robey-Coleman has admitted that he got to Lewis early and that he expected to be flagged on that play.

Had the penalty been correctly called, the Saints would have been awarded first-and-goal and probably would have scored with no time left for the Rams to come back. As it was, the Rams did have enough time to get the ball back and send the game into overtime, where they punched their ticket to the Superbowl, 26-23.

I watched the game with my native New Orleanian fiancé; she was apoplectic. After the game was over, my Facebook feed (which is full of Saints fans) exploded. Twitter exploded as well. The Who Dat Nation is furious; Saints fans are putting up billboards, a New Orleans lawyer is suing the NFL, and even Louisiana Governor Jon Bel Edwards is formally complaining to the NFL.

None of these protests will change the outcome; bad calls (or non-calls) are simply part of the game. Furthermore, as the Houston Press's Sean Pendergast argues, that missed call is not what cost the Saints the game. The real culprit, he says, is Saints head coach Sean Payton:
That call did not lose the game for the Saints. If you're looking for someone to blame, Who Dat Nation, look no further than your head coach, who completely botched the final two minutes of that game. The Saints had the ball on the Rams 13 yard line, 1st and 10, with 1:58 left in regulation and the score tied at 20-20. The Rams had two timeouts left, so basically what this meant was that if the Saints just ran the ball three times and kicked a field goal, the Rams would have the ball with about 45 seconds left, down 3, with no timeouts. Instead, Payton called for two pass plays that went incomplete (one of them was the missed pass interference call) and essentially gave the Rams two extra timeouts. The Rams wound up with the ball, down 3, with 1:44 left and one timeout, more than enough time to kick the tying field goal and send the game to overtime. Yeah, the referees botched that P.I. call, but Payton had an avenue to win that would have kept the zebras out of the mix, and he chose not to use it. Sean Payton lost this game.
Pendergast has a point, as I found myself scratching my head on the poorly-executed short pass attempt on first down. However, I'm willing to give Payton and his staff the benefit of a doubt on the playcalling late in the game because he didn't want to settle for a field goal; he wanted to score a decisive touchdown. The conservative running strategy Pendergast advocates would still have given Rams quarterback Jared Goff 45 seconds to get his team into tying field goal range: difficult, but by no means impossible when you have a good quarterback. For the Rams to go the length of the field and score a touchdown to tie the game with such little time remaining, however, would have been much more difficult.

Furthermore, Pendergast is being a bit disingenuous in his writing. The only reason Payton's second pass play call went incomplete is because of the interference; judging by the trajectory of the ball,  TommyLee Lewis would likely have caught Drew Brees's pass if Robey-Coleman had not prematurely wiped him out. Pendergast's claim that Payton should have "kept the zebras out of the mix" by not passing the ball is also bizarre. Referees are always in the mix: it's their job to officiate the game - and to do so correctly - on every down. That means calling obvious pass interference penalties when they occur.

Besides, I sympathize with the Saints because I've seen a team miss a trip to the Super Bowl on poor officiating myself. Mike Renfro was inbounds!

We'll never know for sure, of course, if the Saints would have actually won that game even if the refs made the correct call. The Rams were in the NFC Championship game for a reason, after all: they were pretty good themselves. But there's no question that the Saints would have been in a significantly more favorable position to win if the flag had been thrown.

The NFL is going to spend the offseason discussing changes in officiating, including making "judgement calls" such as these reviewable. That's little comfort for the Saints or their fans.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

RIP Herb Kelleher

The founder of Southwest Airlines passed away last week:
Herb Kelleher, the eccentric founder of Southwest Airlines who helped revolutionize low-cost air travel, died Thursday. He was 87. 
The company announced his passing in a statement that described Kelleher as a "pioneer, a maverick, and an innovator." The cause of death was not disclosed.
"His vision revolutionized commercial aviation and democratized the skies," the company said. 
"Herb's passion, zest for life, and insatiable investment in relationships made lasting and immeasurable impressions on all who knew him and will forever be the bedrock and esprit de corps of Southwest Airlines."
Legend states that Kelleher and pilot Rollin King met at a restaurant one night in the 1960s and drew Southwest's original route map - a triangle connecting Houston, Dallas and San Antonio - on a cocktail napkin. It's an awesome story, even if it might not be completely true. What is true is that other airlines rightfully felt threatened by what was at the time a revolutionary business model. Even though Southwest was incorporated in 1967, litigation kept it from flying until 1971:
Kelleher was a young lawyer living in Texas before leaving his firm to start Southwest in the 1960s with the goal of providing low-cost transportation among Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. But then-competitors Braniff, Trans Texas, and Continental Airlines fought to keep his startup out of the skies with a temporary restraining order.
Kelleher personally fought the ban, without charging a penny in legal fees, all the way to the Supreme Court of Texas, which eventually ruled in favor of Southwest.
The company, which has become known for its lack of seating assignments and all-coach cabins, began flying in 1971. It evolved into a driving force in the airline industry with routes all over the United States.
Southwest is now the third-largest airline in the United States, in terms of passengers carried, and currently flies to 99 destinations in 11 countries or territories.
"I knew nothing about airlines, which I think made me eminently qualified to start one because what we tried to do at Southwest was get away from the traditional way that airlines had done business," he told NPR's Guy Raz in 2016. "I think that was very helpful."
Kelleher served as Southwest's executive chairman from March 1978 until May 2008 and as president and CEO from September 1981 through June 2001, according to the company. He held the chairman emeritus title at the time of his death. 
"His vision for making air travel affordable for all revolutionized the industry," Southwest chairman and CEO Gary Kelly said in a statement. "But his legacy extends far beyond our industry and far beyond the world of entrepreneurship. He inspired people; he motivated people; he challenged people—and, he kept us laughing all the way."
USA Today's Ben Mutzabaugh lists five innovations that Kelleher's airline introduced to US air travel. Many of these have been adopted by other carriers, both in the United States and abroad.

Zelenci Nature Reserve

2018 might be over, but my series of posts about the big event of last year - last summer's trip to Europe - is not.

The Zelenci Nature Reserve is located in the extreme northwest corner of Slovenia, only a few miles from both the Italian and Austrian borders. It is fed by springs and is the source of the Sava River, which winds its way through Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia before feeding into the Danube in Belgrade.

We first discovered Zelenci in 2016, when we took a day trip from our timeshare Austria to Tarvisio, Italy and Kranjska Gora, Slovenia (this is why I love Europe: three countries in one day!). It was at the top of the "go back to see it again and show my parents" list as we planned the 2018 trip, and for good reason:

 Zelenci is stunningly beautiful, with its its clear blue water and the backdrop of the Julian Alps.

Another view, taken from an observation tower that has been built at the edge of the springs. The nature reserve is right off the highway linking Kranjska Gora to Tarvisio and sees a steady stream of visitors.

Ground level perspective. We'll never get tired of this view.

A duck paddles across the water, which is so clear that you can see the trout swimming underneath the surface. The springs stay at a constant temperature year-round and do not freeze in the winter.

Corinne and take a photo at the edge of the spring. After visiting Zelenci, we continued on to Kranjska Gora - about five minutes away by car - where Corinne was in for a bit of a surprise!

More information about Zelenci (including pictures of what it looks like in season other than summer) can be found here and here. There is no admission fee; however, as of last summer the snack bar at the entrance was no longer there.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

RIP Doug Johnson

Another television personality from my childhood has passed away:
Houston native and longtime local weathercaster Doug Johnson died Thursday, as reported by KPRC, where he worked for decades. He was 79. 
Johnson's career at KPRC spanned 33 years, starting in the early-'60s when he began work as a radio announcer and later co-hosting "Scene at 5" with Ron Stone. The two had a natural chemistry together, which translated to loose humor off screen.
Johnson was a Native Houstonian, who was born and grew up in the Heights and attendaed what was then Reagan High School before attending TCU. After a stint in Fairbanks, Alaska, he returned to Houston in 1962. He joined KPRC and co-anchored the “scene at 5” with Ron Stone (who himself passed away a decade ago):
His rapport and friendship with Stone was apparent to anyone who watched the duo. That chemistry is what made the newscast so enjoyable, according to Bruce Bryant, who directed the show.
“It had humor in a place that you wouldn’t normally find humor,” Bryant said.
The personality-driven newscast featured stories that were on the lighter side of news and finished with a chat segment that showcased the pair’s innate ability to connect with people.
“There was no pretense with them,” Bryant said.
In a segment that became the stuff of television lore, Johnson employed a chicken to help him tell the weather, but Wilma the Weather Chicken had her own ideas of what to do on television. Instead of pecking on the rain cloud or sun, Wilma took flight and landed on top of a camera. Johnson was bitten when he went to retrieve the fowl from her roost. 
While there was the lighter side to his job, Johnson guided Houstonians through some of the worst natural disasters the city has ever experienced.
Johnson was on duty when Hurricane Alicia hit in 1983. We closely followed his reporting up to and until the brunt of the storm hit Houston and we lost power. Maybe it was simply because I was a kid at the time, but there was something reassuring about his reporting leading up to the storm: it was as if everything was going to be okay because Doug Johnson was with us. 

Via KPRC, a retrospective of Doug Johnson's career here in Houston, including the aforementioned chicken incident:

New year, same ol' Texans

At first glance, the Texans appear to have had a good 2018. They were able to pull themselves out of a disappointing 0-3 start to go on a nine-game winning streak, end the regular season with an 11-5 record, and win the AFC South Division for the third time in four seasons. They also beat the evil Dallas Cowboys, which is always a good thing.

All that said, a closer look at their record reveals that the Texans were luckier than they were good this past season: they benefitted from poor overtime decisions by the Colts and Cowboys (the former too aggressive, the latter not aggressive enough), they escaped with wins at Denver and Washington after their opponents missed game-winning field goals, and of the thirteen teams they played, only five ended the season with winning records.

Yesterday, Luck (quite literally) caught up with them:
A year ago at this time Andrew Luck was at home struggling with an injured shoulder that cost him the entire season.
On Saturday he wrote a happy ending to the latest chapter of his comeback season, throwing for 222 yards and two touchdowns and the Indianapolis Colts raced out to a big lead and cruised to a 21-7 win over the Houston Texans in the wild-card game.
Luck put on a show in his hometown in a stadium where he'd attended games throughout childhood and played in them since high school, throwing for 191 yards and two touchdowns before halftime to help the Colts (11-6) build a 21-0 lead.
Andrew Luck got help from Colts RB Marlon Mack, who torched the Texans’ run defense for 148 yards, as well as from an Indianapolis defense that made Houston QB Deshaun Watson’s playoff debut a miserable one and held the Texans to their lowest offensive production of the season.

The end result is a familiar one for the most mediocre and underwhelming franchise in Houston sports history: a lackluster performance in, and early exit from, the playoffs. Is anybody really surprised?

Of course, the social media memes came fast and furious after the game ended, including this one:

Ouch! At least the University of Houston realized that they needed to cut Major Applewhite loose* after that embarrassing bowl game. The Texans, on the other hand, will probably give Bill O'Brien a contract extension.

Chronicle writer Dale Robertson's recap of the game is here. ESPN's Turron Davenport thinks the season was generally successful and wonders about the offseason. The Houston Press's Sean Pendergast looks at the game's winners and losers and makes a depressing observation about J.J. Watt:
[...] I listened to his post game media session, which lasted all of a minute and twenty seconds, and it sounded like a guy who (1) was depressed over another team playoff failure, and (2) realized that he is going to be 30 in March, and that it appears he may never even play in a conference title game, let alone a Super Bowl. Kudos to Watt for coming back from multiple horrific injuries to be an All Pro again, but I do wonder after losses like Saturday's if he wonders what his chances are of ever competing for a Super Bowl here.
I agree. I feel bad for J.J. He deserves a Super Bowl ring, but he will never win one as long as he wears a Texans jersey.

*I'm still working out my thoughts on Applewhite's firing and Dana Holgorsen's hiring, but a post is on its way.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

UH wins and attendance, 2018

With another season in the books, it's time for me to update the wins-versus-attendance graph for the University of Houston football program. This graph goes back to 1965, the first year the Cougars played in the Astrodome.

The Cougars averaged 29,838 fans per home game in 2018. This is a decrease of 3,412 fans per game from the 2017 season and a decrease of 9,116 fans per game from two seasons ago. That's a drop of close to 25% over two seasons. Furthermore, these are announced attendance numbers; as anybody who's been in TDECU Stadium over the last couple of years can attest, the actual number of people in the stands has been significantly smaller.

Earlier today (and to my surprise), Major Applewhite was relieved of his duties as head coach of the University of Houston Cougars. I'll have more to say about that in an upcoming post, but this drop in attendance over his two seasons at the helm is a key reason why this decision was made.